Social Mobility: A Great British Myth

‘You are where you went to school’. A phrase, that reflects the inequalities of UK education. Private schools account for a minority of educational places, yet is dominated by the ‘knowledge economy’ classes. Why the government’s myopia on education?

We have seen the effects of a sub-educated youth underclass, and can only imagine the fate of those piling onto the job market in the next few years. Their fate already sealed, as the economy continues to contract and youth opportunities promised by the current government, looking increasingly elusive.

Yet this masks a bigger and more pervasive social problem. We have been encouraged to believe by successive governments that the stigma of social class is finally being erased from our society. Replacing it, a new age of classless meritocracy and social justice. Perhaps we are finally seeing the decline of the British class system.

Unfortunately, the facts reveal a different story. The recent report published by the Sutton Trust at its Social Mobility Summit in London makes for depressing reading. Comparing the four Anglophone nations of the UK, US, Canada and Australia the report looks at a series of benchmarks for educational investment, academic achievement, university entrance patterns and correlates this against future career success.


Where is it going wrong? If the government is to be judged on the number of initiatives, they should be commended. We should be seeing the green shoots of an educational renaissance here in Britain. However, we are not. It seems we are building academies, creating more OFSTED inspection hoops, adjusting teacher pay structures and the content of our national curriculum. However, we are not improving the quality of our children’s state based education. Meanwhile, our private schools continue to flourish turning out highly qualified children who go on to our top universities. The system of social inequality in Britain continues unabated.

It appears private education in Europe is a particularly British phenomena and one to which the successful middle classes have learned to aspire and pay for. It remains expensive and highly selective and creates a social strata many of our children have to accept at an early age. Alternatives are thin on the ground. No one party is claiming to have the solution with politicians unsure of the fall-out of major structural change. Even modest initiatives such as the latest proposal for a two-tier GCSE examination system seems to be causing a rapid ‘U’ turn in government circles. Meanwhile, politicians and their advisors wrestle with the implications of a two-speed education system.

The Sutton report needs to act as a catalyst for further research and development work to help politicians and other stakeholders understand the mitigating factors that lead to these differences in educational and career achievement. Structural, sociological, political and market forces will all need to be studied and a comparison made between highly successful nations with one tier education systems and our own less successful two-tiered system.

It is only once we have gained the insights for our lack of performance in the state sector, will we be able to engage stakeholder commitment across the community and in government. With this knowledge, we can start a process of change that will lead us to a fairer more effective educational system here in Britain and begin dismantling the class divide that separates our children from their very first day in education.